Authors: Lenora Worth
Tags: #Contemporary, #General, #Romance, #Romance - Contemporary, #Fiction, #Fiction - Romance, #Non-Classifiable, #Romance - General, #Christian, #Religious - General, #Religious, #Religious - Romance
“Dillon, wait,” Isabel called a few seconds later. When he just kept walking, she hurried after him. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t question your being here. You have every right to be here.”
“Do I?” he asked as he whirled around to face her, his hands thrust into the pockets of his jeans, his eyes flashing like quicksilver. “Do I really, Isabel?”
“It’s still your home,” she reminded him as they faced each other in front of the house. “And it’s still beautiful.”
Dillon snorted and inclined his head toward the other side of the country road, away from the mansion. “
not my home, and that house is not beautiful. Not to me.”
Isabel shifted her gaze to the big house sitting across the way. Eli’s modern new luxury home. Grammy had told her he’d built it a couple of years ago. Now, their mother, Cynthia Murdock, lived there with her son.
“I guess Susan will be moving in soon,” she said, very much aware of Dillon’s obvious scorn for the elegant brick house with the lavish landscaping.
“I guess so,” Dillon replied, his gaze reflecting the timid moonlight covering them like a fine mist. “Hope she can stand the squeaky clean linoleum and all the gadgets and gizmos my brother had installed.”
“It’s probably more convenient for your mother, at least,” Isabel said, trying to be tactful.
Dillon scoffed again. “Yeah, well, Eli always did have Mother’s best interest at heart.”
He turned then, his eyes moving over the old plantation house. He stood stoic and still, then said in a voice soft with regret, “I miss this house. I wanted to come home to
Isabel’s heart went out to him. Dillon, always the wild child, always the scrapper, getting into trouble, getting into jams that his father and older brother had had to pull him out of. Dillon, the son who’d left in a huff, mad at the world in general, and hadn’t looked back. Now, he was home, for whatever reason.
Isabel could feel sympathy for whatever Dillon Murdock was experiencing. He’d had it all handed to him. His life had been so easy, so perfect. And what had he done? Thrown it all back in his parents’ faces. What she would have given to have been able to live with that kind of security, with that kind of protection. But instead, she’d had to live in a house so full of holes, the winter wind had chilled her to the bone each night as she’d lain underneath piles of homemade quilts. She’d had to live in a house with run-down plumbing and a leaky roof, simply because the Murdocks didn’t deem her family good enough for repairs. They lived in the house for free; what more did they want anyway? That had been the consensus, as far as the Murdocks were concerned. No, she couldn’t feel sorry for Dillon Murdock. Yet she did, somehow. And that made her put up her guard.
“I always loved this house,” she said now as she strolled over to the raised porch of the mansion. Swinging her slight frame up onto the splintered planks, she sat staring out into the night, into Dillon Murdock’s eyes. “It’s a shame it has to stand empty. Some people don’t realize what they have, obviously.”
She hadn’t meant the statement to sound so bitter, but she could see Dillon hadn’t missed the edge in her words. He came to stand in front of her, his eyes lifting to meet hers. “You’re right there. It took me a long time to learn that lesson.”
Isabel studied him, searching for clues of the life he must have led. But Dillon’s face was as hard as granite, blank and unflinching, unreadable. Until she looked into his eyes. There, she saw his soul, raw and battered, his eyes as aged and gray as the wood underneath the peeling paint of this old house.
“So, you’ve come home,” she said, accepting that he didn’t owe her any explanations. Accepting that she didn’t need, or want, to get involved with the Murdocks’ personal differences.
Dillon stepped so close, she could see the glint of danger in his eyes, could feel the warmth of his breath fanning her hair away from her face. His nearness caused a fine row of goose bumps to go racing down her bare arms, in spite of the warm spring night. Yet, she didn’t dare move. She just sat there, holding her breath, hoping he’d back away. But he didn’t.
“We’ve both come home, Isabel,” he observed as he leaned against the aging porch. “But the question is, what have we come home to?”
With that, he turned and stalked away into the night, leaving her to wonder if she’d made the right decision after all. Taking a deep breath, she pushed her hair away from her face and wondered if maybe she should have stayed away from Wildwood a little longer. Well, she was here now. But while she was here, she’d be sure to stay clear of Dillon Murdock.
She didn’t like feeling sorry for him. She didn’t like feeling anything for him.
Yet, she did. Even after all these years, she still did.
he smell of homemade cinnamon rolls greeted Isabel as she entered the screened back door of the old farmhouse. Grammy had already set the table, complete with fresh flowers from her garden. Touching her hand to a bright orange Gerber daisy, Isabel closed her eyes for just a minute. It was good to be home, in spite of her feelings regarding Wildwood. The meeting with Dillon had left her shaken and unsure, but being here with Grammy gave her strength and security. Grammy always made things seem better.
“There you are,” an aged voice called from the arched doorway leading to the long narrow kitchen off to the right. “I was getting worried.”
Isabel set her camera down on a nearby rickety side table, then stepped forward to take the two glasses of iced tea from her grandmother’s plump, veined hands. “Sorry, Grammy. I got carried away taking pictures of the wildflowers.”
She didn’t mention that she’d also gotten carried away with seeing Dillon Murdock again. She wasn’t ready to discuss him with her grandmother.
“You and that picture taking,” Martha said, waving a hand, her smile gentle and indulging. “The flowers are sure pretty right now, though.” Settling down onto the puffy cushion of her cane-backed chair, she added, “Miss Cynthia always did love her wildflowers. I remember one time a few years back, that Eli got it in his head to mow them down. Said they were an eyesore, what with the old house closed up and everything.”
“He didn’t do it, did he?” Isabel asked, her eyes going wide. “That would have ruined them.”
Martha chuckled as she automatically reached for Isabel’s hand, prepared to say grace. “Oh, no. He tried, though. Had one of the hired hands out on a mower early one morning. Miss Cynthia heard the tractor and went tramping through the flowers, all dressed in a pink suit and cream pumps, her big white hat flapping in the wind. She told that tractor driver to get his hide out of her flowers. She watched until that poor kid drove that mower clear back to the equipment barn. Then she headed off, prim as ever, to her Saturday morning brunch at the country club.”
Isabel shook her head, sat silently as Grammy said grace, then took a long swallow of the heavily sweetened tea. “I was right. Some things never change.”
Martha passed her the boiled new potatoes and fresh string beans. “Do you regret taking the Murdocks up on their offer?”
Isabel bit into a mouthful of the fresh vegetables, then swallowed hastily. “You mean being the official photographer for Eli’s extravagant wedding?”
“I wouldn’t use the same wording, exactly,” Martha said, a wry smile curving her wrinkled lips, “but I reckon that’s what I was asking.”
Smiling, herself, at her grandmother’s roundabout way of getting to the heart of any matter, Isabel stabbed her knife into her chicken-fried steak, taking out her frustrations on the tender meat. “Well, I’m having second thoughts, yes,” she admitted, her mind on Dillon. “But I couldn’t very well turn them down. They’re paying me a bundle and I can always use the cash. But, I mainly did it because you asked me to, Grammy.”
“Don’t let me talk you into anything,” Martha said, her blue eyes twinkling.
“As if you’ve ever had to talk anyone into anything,” Isabel responded, laughing at last. “You could sweet-talk a mule into tap dancing.”
“Humph, never tried that one.” Her grandmother grinned impishly. “But I did bake your favorite cinnamon rolls, just in case—Miss Mule.”
“For dessert?” Isabel asked, sniffing the air, the favorite nickname her grandmother always used to imply that she was stubborn slipping over her head. “Or do I have to hold out till breakfast?”
Martha reached across the lacy white tablecloth to pat her granddaughter’s hand. “Not a soul here, but you and me. Guess we can eat ’em any time we get hungry for ’em.”
“Dessert, then, definitely,” Isabel affirmed, munching down on her steak. “Ah, Grammy, you are the best cook in the world.”
“Well, you could have my cooking a lot more if you came to visit more often.”
Isabel set her fork down, her gaze centered on her sweet grandmother. She loved her Grammy; loved her plump, sweet-scented welcoming arms, loved her smiling, jovial face, loved her gray tightly curled hair. Yet, she couldn’t bring herself to move back here permanently, a subject they’d tossed back and forth over the years.
Her tone gentle, she said, “Grammy, don’t start with that. You know I have to travel a lot in my line of work and I don’t always have an opportunity to come home.”
Martha snorted. “Well, you told me yourself you didn’t have any assignments lined up over the next few weeks, so you can stay here and have a nice vacation. Living in a suitcase—that is no kind of life for a young lady.”
“I have an apartment in Savannah.”
“That you let other people live in—what kind of privacy does that give you?”
“Very little, when I manage to get back there,” Isabel had to admit. “Subletting is the only way to hold on to it, though.”
“And you always going on and on when you were little about having a home of your own.”
Her appetite suddenly gone, Isabel stared down at the pink-and-blue-flowered pattern on her grandmother’s aged china. “Yeah, I did do that. But I never got that home. And I’ve learned to be content with what I do have.” Only lately, she had to admit, her nomadic life was starting to wear a little thin.
Wanting to lighten the tone of the conversation, she jumped up to hug her grandmother. “And I have everything I need—like home-baked cinnamon rolls and a grandmother who doesn’t nag too much.”
Martha sighed and patted Isabel’s back, returning the hug generously. “Okay, Miss Mule, I can take a hint. I won’t badger you anymore—tonight at least.”
“Thank you,” Isabel said, settling back down in her own chair. “Now, how ’bout one of those rolls you promised me?”
“Glad to be home?” Martha challenged, her brows lifting, a teasing glow on her pink-cheeked face.
“Oh, all right, yes,” Isabel admitted, taking the small defeat as part of the fun of having a remarkable woman for a grandmother. “I’m glad to be home.”
“That’s good, dear.”
Isabel smiled as Martha headed into the kitchen to retrieve two fat, piping hot cinnamon rolls. Martha Landry was a pillar of the church, a Sunday school teacher who prided herself on teaching the ways of Jesus Christ as an example of character and high moral standing, but with a love and practicality that reached the children much more effectively than preaching down to them ever could.
Isabel knew her grandmother wouldn’t preach to her, either; not in the way her own parents always had. It was a special part of her relationship with her grandmother that had grown over the years since her parents’ deaths. She could talk to Grammy about anything and know that Martha Landry wouldn’t sit in judgment. One of Grammy’s favorite Bible quotes was from First Corinthians: “For if we would judge ourselves, we should not be judged.”
Isabel knew her grandmother believed in accepting people as humans, complete with flaws. And that included their mighty neighbors. Yet Isabel couldn’t help but judge the Murdocks, since they’d passed judgment on her a long time ago.
“I saw Dillon tonight,” she said now, her gaze locking with her grandmother’s, begging for understanding. “He’s home for the wedding.”
Isabel watched for her grandmother’s reaction, and seeing no condemnation, waited for Martha to speak.
“Well, well,” the older woman said at last, her carefully blank gaze searching Isabel’s face. “And how was Mr. Dillon Murdock?”
“Confused, I believe,” Isabel replied. “He seemed so sad, Grammy. So very sad.”
“That man’s had a rough reckoning over the past few years. From what I’ve heard, he hasn’t had it so easy since he left Wildwood.”
Hating herself for being curious, Isabel asked, “And just what did you hear?”
Grammy feigned surprise. “Child, you want me to pass on gossip?”
Isabel grinned. “Of course not. I just want you to share what you know.”
Martha licked sweet, white icing off her fingers. “Yep, you want me to spill the beans on Dillon Murdock. Do you still have a crush on him, after all these years?”
Isabel cringed at her grandmother’s sharp memory, then sat back to try to answer that question truthfully. “You know, Grammy, I had a crush on him, true. But that was long ago, and even though I saw Dillon each and every day, I never really knew him. And I don’t know him now. It was a dream, and not a very realistic one.”
“Amen to that. And now?”
Isabel couldn’t hide the truth from her grandmother. “And now, I’m curious about the man he’s become. Seeing him again tonight, well, it really threw me. He seemed the same, but he also seemed different. I’m hoping he’s changed some.”
Martha gave her a long, scrutinizing stare. “That’s all well and good, honey. But remember, the boy you knew had problems, lots of problems. And as far as we know, the man might still be carrying those same problems. I’d hate to see you open yourself up to a world of hurt.”
Isabel got up to clear away their dishes, her eyes downcast. “Oh, you don’t have to worry on that account, Grammy. When I left Wildwood, I promised myself I’d never be hurt by the Murdocks again.”
“Especially Dillon,” Isabel readily retorted. Then she turned at the kitchen door. “Although Dillon never really did anything that terrible to me.”
“Really. Oh, he teased me a lot, but mostly his only fault was that he was a Murdock. Eli, on the other hand, made no bones about my being the poor hired help. I just can’t tolerate their superior attitudes and snobbery. Not now. I did when I was living here, but not now. Not anymore.”
Martha followed Isabel into the kitchen. “And did Mr. Dillon Murdock act superior tonight, when you talked to him?”
Isabel surprised herself by defending him. “No, he didn’t. Not at all. In fact, he was…almost humble.”
“I just hope that boy’s learned from his mistakes.”
“Me, too,” Isabel said. “Me, too.”
Dillon’s soul-weary eyes came back to her mind, so brilliantly clear, she had to shake her head to rid herself of the image. “You don’t have to worry about me and Dillon Murdock, Grammy. I don’t plan on falling for any of his sob stories.”
“Should be an interesting wedding,” Martha commented, her hands busy washing out plates.
Isabel didn’t miss the implications of that statement. She never could fool her grandmother.
Dillon stood at the back door of his brother’s house, every fiber of his being telling him not to enter the modern, gleaming kitchen. But his mother was standing at the sink, dressed in white linen slacks and a blue silk blouse, her curled hair turned now from blond to silver-white, her small frame more frail-looking than Dillon remembered. He smiled as he heard her loudly giving orders to the maid who’d been with their family for years.
“Now, Gladys, we want everything to be just right, remember? So finish up there, dear, then you can go on back to tidying the guest room for Dillon. He’ll be here any minute.”
Cynthia had written to him, begging him to come home for his brother’s wedding.
And so here he stood.
The minute he opened the glass door to the room, he was assaulted with the scent of dinner rolls baking, along with the scent of fragrant potpourri and a trace of his mother’s overly sweet perfume. At least some parts of Eli’s new home were familiar.
“Hello, Mama,” he said from his spot by the door.
Cynthia whirled from directing the maid to see who’d just entered her kitchen, her gray eyes wide, her mouth opening as she recognized her younger son. “Oh, my…Dillon. You came home.”
Dillon took his tiny mother into his arms, his hands splaying across her back in a tight hug, his eyes closing as memories warmed his heart even while it broke all over again. Then he set his mother away, so he could look down into her face. “This isn’t my home, Mother. Not this house. It belongs to Eli.”
“Well, you’re welcome here. You should know that,” Cynthia insisted as she reached up to push a stubborn spike of hair away from his forehead. “You look tired, baby.”
He was tired. Tired of worrying, wondering, hoping, wishing. He didn’t want to be here, but he wanted to be with his mother. She was getting older. They’d kept in touch, but he should have come home long ago. “I could use a glass of tea,” he said by way of hiding what he really needed. “Where’s Eli?”
“Right here,” his brother said from a doorway leading into the airy, spacious den. “Just got in from the cotton patch.” Stomping into the kitchen, his work boots making a distinctive clicking sound, Eli Murdock looked his brother over with disdain and contempt. “Of course, you wouldn’t know a thing about growing cotton, now would you, little brother?”
“Not much,” Dillon admitted, a steely determination making him bring his guard up.
His brother had aged visibly in the years that Dillon had been away. Eli’s hair was still thick and black, but tinges of gray now peppered his temples. He was still tall and commanding, but his belly had a definite paunch. He looked worn-out, dusty, his brown eyes shot with red.
“So, it’s cotton now?” Dillon asked by way of conversation. “When did we switch cash crops? I thought corn and peanuts were our mainstay.”
didn’t do anything,” Eli said as he poured himself a tall glass of water then pointed at his own chest. “I, little brother, I did all the work on this farm, while you were gallivanting around Atlanta, living off Daddy’s money. Why’d you come back, anyway—to beg Mama for your inheritance?”
“Eli!” Cynthia moved between her sons with practiced efficiency. “I invited Dillon home, for your wedding. And I want you to try to be civil to each other while he’s here. Do you both understand?”
Dillon looked at his mother’s hopeful, firm expression, then glanced at the brooding hostility on his brother’s ruddy face. “Why don’t you ask the groom, Mother?”
“I’m asking both of you,” Cynthia said, her eyes moving from one son to the other. “For my sake, and for Susan’s sake.”
Eli hung his head, then lifted his gaze to Dillon. “As long as he stays out of my way. I won’t have him ruining Susan’s big day.”